shewhomust (shewhomust) wrote,

Rewards & Fairies

Elizabeth Bear's Blood and Iron is an urban fantasy (in the sense that magical beings and events occupy the streets of New York), and a fairy story (in the sense that it is concerned with the Fae, and the magical places where they live, and their dealings with mortals). It may well be entitled to any number of other descriptive labels which passed me by, because my reading in contemporary fantasy is patchy, and matociquala has clearly read everything. Like Diana Wynne Jones's Fire and Hemlock (and many other books), Blood and Iron builds on the ballad of Tam Lin; it also draws on a mass of Arthurian legend, and nods to Tolkien.

This makes it sound like a scissors and paste job, and that isn't the case at all: completely unlike the Jenny Casey books is setting and subject matter, Blood and Iron shares their insistence that sometimes there is no right answer, only a choice of wrong answers, that people may be damaged by their experiences, not recover from that damage but nonetheless do heroic things.

Which makes the book sound not only Educational but also Improving, and fails to point out that it is also a gripping (" just one more chapter before I turn the light out. Oh, just one more, then...") story. There's a war on, and a love story, and there's politics and werewolves and Merlin...

There's a Fairy Queen or three, as well. In fact, the book is dominated by strong women, not so much the Seeker herself as the three Queens of Faerie, and their opponent, the Promethean Mage. They are irresistible, implacable: they do terrible things, sometimes for the best of reasons, sometimes not. The central male characters are more human in scale, driven by these women or trapped by destiny and heritage.

The Merlin, poised between the two forces, is another strong woman, but human in her uncertainty, first because the world of war and magic is new to her, then because she is asked to take sides when victory for either party would be disastrous. She is an appealing character, with her mixture of fascination with the scholarship of magic and music opening before her, balanced by a strong sense that this is not naïve, that she has her own life and her own motives - expressed in part by her distinctive dress style, to which she clings despite all the possibilities of glamourie (I wondered if there was some specific significance in her signature beadwork, which adorns outfit after outfit). There's a sense of more to be told about Carel, and that's not only because she makes the link between music and magic.

Not to mention Whiskey: all dark deeds in the past, and all charm in the present, he's a seductive character, and the bestest My Little Pony ever. I blinked a little at the notion that calling someone "Whiskey" was a good way of concealing the fact that their top secret magical Name is "Uisgebaugh", but not as hard I blinked at the old laird in his unspecified Scottish home drinking whiskey (matociquala told me that this is a difference between UK and US spelling, but I continued to stumble over it).

There's a story, there are characters; and this is good. But an even greater pleasure, for me, was the way the book tells its own story while carrying on a dialogue with the earlier tradition. There's the commentary on Tam Lin (with a very tempting explanation of Janet's green kirtle); there's the wonderful image of the railroad across the USA as an iron belt to keep the Fae in check; there's some very fancy footwork around the way that fairies are traditionally described as having either no heart or no soul, taking this apparent contradiction and making it into another of the series of oppositions around which the book is built (I almost called this post "Heart & Soul").

And there's a blue-eyed Russian werewolf with a perfectly unaccented voice.
Tags: books

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